Sara Lyons responds to Scott Thompson
I also noticed the discrepancy between LeCourt’s endorsement of surface reading in the Eliot chapter and his own tendency toward deep, carefully contextualised analysis and even toward the now-much-suspected hermeneutics of suspicion. Although LeCourt explicitly repudiates the ‘plot of Gothic revelation’ (71) implicit in certain styles of ideology critique, the book is nevertheless preoccupied with exposing the ideological contradictions and blindspots of Victorian liberalism. In LeCourt’s case, a partial internalisation of the current turn against critique really means extending greater intellectual sympathy – one might say adopting a more liberal, many-sided stance – toward figures like Arnold than they have sometimes received at the hands of more determinedly hostile Marxist, Foucauldian, and postcolonial critics.
One of the salutary effects of LeCourt’s own many-sidedness is how scrupulously he resists the kinds of association fallacies that often harden into critical orthodoxies and lead us to confuse our own ideological reflexes with those of the past. Thompson notes one instance of this when he highlights LeCourt’s efforts to reveal the Protestant asceticism often undergirding the liberal commitment to open-mindedness. Another striking example is LeCourt’s analysis of the polygenesis versus monogenesis debate in nineteenth-century anthropology. LeCourt here wants to reveal that the ideological corollaries of the contending positions were far from straightforward – indeed, often profoundly counterintuitive from a twenty-first-century perspective. As Thompson says, the book crisply synthesises a remarkable swathe of religious and colonial history and key issues in both Victorian and contemporary debates about secularism, aesthetics, and liberalism. But more remarkable is that LeCourt manages to keep a sense of the contingency and fluidity of the ideological stakes of those debates in play throughout.